Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Monday, September 30, 2013 7:33 pm

Shutdown primer

James Fallows at The Atlantic explains the only parts that really matter:

  • As a matter of substance, constant-shutdown, permanent-emergency governance is so destructive that no other serious country engages in or could tolerate it. The United States can afford it only because we are — still — so rich, with so much margin for waste and error. Details on this and other items below.*
  • As a matter of politics, this is different from anything we learned about in classrooms or expected until the past few years. We’re used to thinking that the most important disagreements are between the major parties, not within one party; and that disagreements over policies, goals, tactics can be addressed by negotiation or compromise.This time, the fight that matters is within the Republican party, and that fight is over whether compromise itself is legitimate.** Outsiders to this struggle — the president and his administration, Democratic legislators as a group, voters or “opinion leaders” outside the generally safe districts that elected the new House majority — have essentially no leverage over the outcome. I can’t recall any situation like this in my own experience, and the only even-approximate historic parallel (with obvious differences) is the inability of Northern/free-state opinion to affect the debate within the slave-state South from the 1840s onward. Nor is there a conceivable “compromise” the Democrats could offer that would placate the other side.
  • As a matter of journalism, any story that presents the disagreements as a “standoff,” a “showdown,” a “failure of leadership,” a sign of “partisan gridlock,” or any of the other usual terms for political disagreement,represents a failure of journalism*** and an inability to see or describe what is going on. …This isn’t “gridlock.” It is a ferocious struggle within one party, between its traditionalists and its radical factions, with results that unfortunately can harm all the rest of us — and, should there be a debt default, could harm the rest of the world too. …

* The FAA, the FDA, our research organizations, all other public programs from monitoring air quality to modernizing computer systems to staffing the military — they’re all wasting time and money now because of indiscriminate “sequester” cuts and preparations for possible shut-down. For the foreseeable future, the air traffic will keep moving and other functions will go on — just more stupidly and wastefully. We have that much social capital still to burn. …

** The debt-ceiling vote, of course, is not about future spending decisions. It is about whether to cover expenditures the Congress has already authorized. There is no sane reason for subjecting this to a repeated vote. … [And] in case the point is not clear yet: there is no post-Civil War precedent for what the House GOP is doing now. …

*** For examples of coverage that plainly states what is going on, here is a small sampling: Greg SargentDerek ThompsonJohn Gilmour (on why Ronald Reagan believed in compromise), Jonathan RauchBrian BeutlerJonathan ChaitAndrew Sullivan (also here), Ezra Klein and Evan SoltasDan Froomkin.

The failure of mainstream media to report accurately on this subject is perhaps its biggest fail since its coverage of the runup to the Iraq invasion in 2003. And although the number of lives immediately at risk is far lower, the worldwide economic damage that could result is far higher.

As for what actually will happen, I don’t have any insider knowledge. But I do know that the Tea Party wing of the House GOP (egged on by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas) is full-throttle, turn-it-up-to-11 crazy. The reason the GOP is split is because they think House Speaker John Boehner and his allies aren’t being conservative enough. They have learned nothing from their recent failures, and they think the biggest problem with the government shutdown that resulted from disputes between Democratic President Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich’s Republicans in Congress was that the Republicans, who finally caved after about three weeks, gave in too soon. So I’m projecting a 95% chance of a government shutdown, an 80% chance that the shutdown will last more than two weeks, and at least a 40% chance that they will force the U.S., for the first time in history, to default on its debt.

They just want to blow government up. They don’t care about collateral damage — the millions, here and abroad, who would be harmed if the full faith and credit of the United States were to be called into question. But the only way for that NOT to happen is for the Crazy Caucus to suddenly start acting less crazy. And there’s nothing in the caucus’s history to suggest the slightest likelihood that that will happen.


  1. Lex, after watching the inexorable degeneration of the US political system over the past 20 years, ten of them at extremely close range, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s time for a new Constitutional Convention to revise the Founders’ document. Not change it, just revise it to reflect modern realities and the evolution of US politics and society. Among the issues that must be addressed, in my opinion:
    1. Term limits for legislators, not just the executive (no more career politicians)
    2. Campaign-contribution limits (good-bye K Street)
    3. A check on the Supreme Court, particularly important given the several clearly wrong and disastrously consequential decisions in recent years (so long Citizens United)
    4. An explicit balanced-budget presumption, unless a case can be made for otherwise (Keynes was right in limited circumstances)
    5. Time limits on campaigning (see 1 and 2 above)
    6. A clearer understanding of just how paternal the federal government should be, studying issues such as health and retirement benefits, jobs programs, education aids, etc.
    I know it’s a radical proposal, and I’m fuzzy on the details (who’d sit in the convention, for a starter). But as you can see from my thoughts, the current system is all about excess, financial and rhetorical. Politicians, fueled by an almost unlimited supply of cash, are unable to curb themselves, so it’s time for cooler heads to prevail and set the limits for them. Cut off the cash, and there will many many fewer hyenas around the water hole. Constitutional change, however, is not easy. It must come from either the Congress itself (unlikely, as it would be their honey pot on which the lid would clamp), or from the states. In my view, it’s up to the states to force the changes. Anything else would just be tinkering around the edges. In France, where I live, the economic system is broken. In the US, it’s the political system.

    Comment by Blair Pethel — Tuesday, October 1, 2013 2:47 am @ 2:47 am

  2. The U.S. political system is broken, but it’s instructive to note why it’s broken and why a constitutional convention isn’t the answer. In many respects, the system is broken because various informal arrangements have been exploited by one particular party. These quaint vestiges of a more civil time are now cudgels. For decades, the filibuster was a special tool used for special fights, but the Republicans have overused it to such an extent that the Senate now effectively requires a supermajority to get anything done. Solution: change Senate rules.

    For decades, opposing debt-limit increases was a Kabuki exercise conducted by whichever party was in the opposition, as a way to embarrass the party holding the White House. Now the Republicans have transformed it into a tool of brinksmanship and blackmail. Solution: change the law that requires increasing the debt limit, because after all it’s a stupid law. Congress already authorized increasing the debt limit when it passed appropriations in excess of tax receipts.

    You can point to other examples as well, such as Senate holds that used to be invoked occasionally and are now being used by Republicans to prevent the president from filling judgeships and cabinet slots. Remember, it was Republican Senator Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama who put a hold on a nomination to the Fed Board of Governors because he claimed the nominee was unqualified. Who was that nominee? Nobel laureate economist Peter Diamond.

    Each of these is an example of the minority party exerting power entirely out of proportion with its recent electoral success. Each is fixable. None requires changing the constitution. I’m not saying that fixing these will make everything suddenly okay. Our political system faces other problems as well. But fixing these would be a good start.

    Comment by Andrew Brod — Tuesday, October 1, 2013 2:25 pm @ 2:25 pm

  3. Maybe I’m wrong; maybe a constitutional solution is the right one after all:

    Comment by Andrew Brod — Wednesday, October 2, 2013 1:16 pm @ 1:16 pm

  4. I agree with the detailed prescriptions in your comment No. 2, Andrew, but they are just that: palliatives for symptoms. I’m talking about curing the disease — money — by comprehensive structural reform of the system to reflect modern realities. None of the Founders could envision what we’ve got today: a system totally corrupted by cash that has bred a cadre of professional pols beholden to their paymasters. That has to be redressed.

    Comment by Blair Pethel — Thursday, October 3, 2013 1:23 am @ 1:23 am

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